Amherst Town Council reviews original draft of 2023 budget

May 10, 2022 | Dylan Corey

AMHERST – Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Finance Director Sean Mangano presented the original draft for Amherst’s fiscal year 2023 (FY23) budget at the Town Council’s May 2 meeting. The budget will now be reviewed and altered over a month-long process by the Finance Committee.

“We are in challenging times,” Bockelman said during his introductory remarks. “We have managed through a worldwide (coronavirus) pandemic that has now morphed into supply chain and staffing challenges. These things have created new pressures on our budget. Through it all, the town has been successful taking on each challenge without drama and with conviction and that will continue, I assure you. At the same time, the town council has provided leadership by establishing goals for the town through a robust public process. Two of our overarching goals – sustainability and racial equity – serve as lenses for all of our decisions.”

The proposed budget totals nearly $90 million – an overall increase of 5.1 percent from FY22. The operating budget for the town, schools and Jones Library is projected to increase by 2.5 percent to over $70 million of the total budget. The presentation included a list of notable projects to be included in the FY23 Capital Improvement Program. These include $1.5 million for roads, nearly $2 million for a replacement Fire Department ladder truck and ambulance which had its wheels fall off near the end of April, $350,000 for a new gym floor at Crocker Farm Elementary and $200k for both sidewalks and sustainability projects.

“We’re seeing our revenues go higher primarily led by local receipts, ambulance receipts, property taxes and state aid,” Mangano said. “Local receipts, some of the areas we’re seeing rise are good economic indicators such as hotel and motel excise, licenses and permits which rises when you see a lot of building going on, and departmental revenue which rises when departments get back to normal like our Recreation Department.”

Mangano added that on top of the 2.5 percent tax levy increase included every year, the town has also benefitted from strong revenues generated by new growth in the past few years. All of the building and development around Amherst translates into additional funds, something Mangano said is vital to maintaining their programming going forward and being able to invest in new initiatives.

“Other financing sources are a combination of different types of revenue. One that’s in there is the ambulance fund,” Mangano said. “When the EMS department transports somebody to the hospital, we bill for that service and a few years ago we raised those fees when we lost the Hadley routes. Right after that, the pandemic hit and we weren’t really able to see what the outcome of raising fees was so we’re starting to see that now, that’s the good news. For FY23 that’s supporting not only a base amount to support the operating budget, it’s also supporting a planned purchase of an ambulance and some other equipment.”

The town has six spending focuses: climate action, community health and safety, economic vitality, four major capital investments, housing affordability and racial equity and social justice. Much of the funding for these projects in FY23 comes out of the $11.9 million awarded to them through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). According to the budget document on the town’s website, the town has chosen to allocate ARPA funds in two rounds with the first round totaling $9.7 million as of now. Two million dollars of the ARPA funds will go to support the development of affordable housing and a shelter or transitional housing. Sites at Belchertown Road and East Street School will continue their development.

The proposal allocates $500,000 of ARPA funds to implement strategies from the Climate Action, Adaptation and Resiliency Plan. There is possible acquisition of four hybrid police cruisers and an ambulance and ladder truck with anti-idling technology. Resources will help complete the North Landfill Solar Project, solar and battery storage feasibility studies at multiple municipal locations and expand the bike share network among other projects.

The Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service (CRESS) Department will receive over $370,000 as the town emphasizes its community health and safety funding. They also allotted over $750k of ARPA funds for public health staffing and resources and public mental health services.

“I’m thrilled that our new CRESS Director Earl Miller is on board and is building this third leg of public safety along with police and fire EMS,” Bockelman said. “The goal is to ensure that every member of our community feels safe and that we’re able to provide the appropriate response to whatever situation arises. CRESS fills in the void that had been met previously by police and fire.”

Small businesses will have the opportunity to apply for grants which will come out of $750,000 in ARPA funds divided to provide startup, growth and technical assistance. Mangano added that this and many other ARPA initiatives include equity criteria. At least 50 percent of the small business grants must go to Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning), women-owned or another marginalized group. The portal to apply should be available within weeks.

“The small business grant for example the startup, I think they’re either $5k or $10k per applicant,” Mangano said. “There’s going to be a portal that opens up for both the startup and the growth grants where businesses in town can apply. One requirement is that you have to demonstrate you were negatively impacted by the pandemic somehow, it’s just a requirement of the ARPA grant in order to do this. That will be an open process where businesses can apply, the Business Improvement District is going to administer that grant program and they will have a board or group that oversees the award.”

At-Large Councilor Ellisha Walker asked, “I’m excited to hear that we’ll have grants available for small businesses because we know they were very impacted by COVID[-19] but it’s my understanding that ARPA funds are to go back into communities and populations that were disproportionately affected by COVID[-19], so do we have a plan to be putting those funds directly back into the community and to low-income families? Springfield has an application portal open where families directly impacted by COVID[-19] can apply for ARPA funds for their families and things like that so I’m wondering if we have a plan to support the actual communities and not just business owners with the ARPA funds.”

Mangano replied to tell the council about a grant-funded program for $150,000 dedicated to resident emergency aid. He said it’ll be restricted to low-income families that were negatively impacted by the pandemic. The grants will potentially support back rent, back utilities, back mortgage and other things of that nature.

Another $500,000 of ARPA funds will go to further explore and possibly begin the creation of a youth empowerment center and over $61,000 added to further fund the office of diversity, equity and inclusion. Bockelman and Mangano ensured continued support of the African Heritage Reparations Assembly and the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee.
The finance committee will host a budget public hearing on May 16. Until then, they recommend adding your input by general comments to the Town Council or going to Engage Amherst online.

“We’re really trying to funnel all questions through Engage Amherst because it’s really convenient for notifying staff,” Mangano said. “When a question comes in we can answer it publicly or privately, we typically answer them publicly, and then it logs it so anybody else who goes to the website can see the Q-and-A from before that will hopefully answer a question or stimulate a new question so as much as possible we’re pushing people to this Engage Amherst page to submit their questions.”

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